DARLINGTON, S.C. – Kevin Harvick won his second Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday night at Darlington Raceway.
He also won the 2014 Southern 500 – the same season he went on to capture his lone Cup points championship. This year, Harvick – with eight wins this entire season – hopes to get his second season crown at the end of these playoffs in Phoenix.
Harvick is no stranger to success at Darlington. Sunday's playoff opener was his 10th consecutive race at the Track Too Tough to Tame in which he placed in the top 10. And of course, he won Darlington’s Real Heroes 400 in May – to mark NASCAR’s return from a pandemic-induced break -- with no fans.
On Sunday, however, up to 8,000 fans were allowed for this 71st edition of one of NASCAR’s crown-jewel events.
“The first thing I want to say is, ‘Welcome back, fans!’” Harvick yelled in the postrace interview.
Sunday marked the 57th Cup win of Harvick's career, the first of which was in 2001 at Atlanta.
Austin Dillon was second in Sunday’s race at Darlington. Joey Logano was third, followed by 2019 Southern 500 champion Erik Jones and William Byron.
What made Harvick’s Sunday victory so unlikely was that it seemed the Johnny Mantz trophy would go to either Chase Elliott or 2016 Southern 500 champ, Martin Truex Jr. But with 14 laps left, and Elliott leading, Truex tried for the pass, but Truex’s Toyota brushed against Elliott’s Chevy, and they got their Darlington stripes.
That cleared the way for Harvick to take control. Only Harvick didn’t know about his opportunity at first.
“I didn't see anything,” Harvick said. “(Spotter Tim Fedewa) came on the radio and told me that the leaders had just wrecked. At that particular point, the whole game changes just because of the fact that obviously I knew we were running third. At that point it was managing what I had behind me and trying to make sure that I didn't make any big mistakes to give up big chunks of time. As we went through the next couple laps, obviously I could see the (Elliott) and (Truex) getting progressively closer to me as we were making laps, and the (Truex) pitted there, and when I passed (Elliott’s car), I saw that he was all tore up. So it was definitely a strange cycle of laps there over those four or five laps.”
Truex led the most laps Sunday with 196 and won both the first and second stages.
To still drive away with the win, Harvick was especially happy.
“It was a battle. It wasn’t necessarily pretty. But everybody on our (Ford Mustang team) did a great job tonight keeping us in the race,” Harvick said. “(Crew chief Rodney Childers) had great strategy. Our car was extremely loose all night, and we were able to manage to get it better but never really got it going as good as we'd like to. But they battled, and we kept ourselves in the right spot. The leaders got tangled up and we were in position to capitalize on that. Definitely weren't the fastest car but definitely put ourselves in a position to capitalize on a moment.”
In a race, it only matters where one finishes. And for Harvick to have that kind of finish in front of fans brought an especially intense euphoria. After a kid wearing Harvick gear offered Harvick the checkered flag, Harvick said he could keep it.
“I'm a little biased towards the kids,” Harvick said. “Seeing that young man standing up there with his 4 hat on and holding that flag, there was no way I was getting out of my car and taking that flag. Hopefully that's something that he can remember and remember going forward as he tells his friends and his family, and hopefully everybody remembers that and comes back again. That's what it's all about −right? − making sure that people have a great time, and we're back with fans at the racetrack, and to see those kids back in the grandstands is a lot of fun.”
And no one had a better time than Harvick and Darlington’s fans Sunday.
“Oh, it was way better,” Harvick said, comparing Sunday’s win with the fanless Real Heroes 400 in May. “I mean, it was − to get out of that race car and have all that emotion and finally have somebody to share it with and get a reaction that comes with your excitement from the fans, and to have that enthusiasm that goes hand in hand with your − the things that you say and the things that you do and the reactions that you get, it felt really good. That's the first race that I've won this year that anybody has been here.
“But I think back to the first race here, and for me that was really the moment that put it all into perspective of where we were and what we were doing and how drastic of a situation it was when you have all that enthusiasm to share with nobody and just dead silence,” he added. “It felt really, really good to have some cheering fans in the grandstands and be able to experience that again.”